Editorial: Facebook crosses line with Graph Search

FacebookPrivacyComicThanks to Facebook’s new Graph Search feature, you can run, but you can’t hide your pictures.

Graph Search, which is currently being tested, is a Facebook search engine that allows you to find information based on specific search word combinations, for example, “people who like dogs and live in Waco.”

Other information apart from pictures is available — a search for a specific person based on information they’ve shared with you will yield results, for example, as will a search for “restaurants my friends have been to.”

This new feature turns popular phrase “Facebook stalking,”usually taken to mean looking at the pictures or information on a Facebook profile without talking to the profile holder, into actual stalking.

So if you’re worried about privacy with Graph Search, your concerns are valid, but not in the way you might think.

According to Graph Search’s privacy statement, each person will see different results based on the individual privacy settings chosen by the searchee. You might see different results for your mom, for example, than the boss you be-Facebook-friended.

So you have the option to take much of your information out of the equation by manipulating your own privacy settings — if you can figure out how — but as navigating Facebook’s confusing-at-best privacy settings is difficult, information you may not want available might be available.

Take the example of Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook creator Mark Zuckerberg’s own sister, who was unpleasantly surprised when a private family photo was shared by a friend’s friend without her knowledge. This was with Facebook’s new mobile app “Poke,” which allows photos to be deleted after seconds, a measure supposedly implemented to increase privacy.

If Mark Zuckerberg’s own sister has an issue, think of the damage Graph Search could do to those without the inside track to Facebook privacy.

Furthermore, according to the statement, it is also possible for others to see “any photos they can see on Facebook, including photos hidden from timeline.”

Graph Search represents danger not for those who want complete privacy, but for those who hope to hide information or photos by allowing them to remain obscure. Remember, hiding doesn’t mean deleting ­— so while those embarrassing photos you hid won’t show up on your timeline, they will be searchable on Graph Search. Or let’s say you post a status about a bar that you trust your colleagues won’t see because it’s hidden from your timeline (but not deleted)?


Furthermore, what about photos you’re tagged in, but didn’t post yourself?

“Photos that are untagged but not deleted can still be discovered by others on Facebook,” according to Graph Search’s page.

This means your ability to hide those photos depends on someone else’s actions. Even if you’ve untagged yourself, the photo is still searchable, and you’re still visible, even though it’s not your photo and you have untagged yourself.

The problem here, like in the case of Randi Zuckerberg, is that Graph Search puts the privacy of your information in the hands of others.

Furthermore, what are the limits of what you can search?

The tumblr blog “Actual Facebook Graph Searches” lists some examples that could lead to trouble, such as “Islamic men interested in men who live in Tehran.” Homosexuality is manifestly illegal in Iran and can be punishable by death. An extension located on the side of the page by the search lists the places where the unlucky search victims work.

The possibility that Graph Search will be used for malicious purposes exists. And as Facebook privacy options can’t evolve fast enough to keep up with already-released Facebook features, this can only lead to disaster, like in the case of Randi Zuckerberg.

In all likeliness, the danger won’t be intentional — however, negligence, when it leads to the harm of others, is still a crime.

While we hope Facebook will reconsider releasing Graph Search, as it is already being tested, we realize this is unlikely.

Instead, as it has in the case of online giants and personal privacy, the burden falls to the individual.

The best advice is to check your privacy settings. Check them well. Delete what you don’t want seen, and prepare for the next wave of publicity to hit. Talk to your friends in advance about what is OK and not OK to share.

Now, the feature is only offered to a limited number of people, although there is a waiting list you can sign up for to try it. Visit www.facebook.com/about/graphsearch to be put on the wait list.